Report: Auto Tariffs Threaten Low- and Mid-Tier Auto Suppliers

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August 20, 2018—Mary Buchzeiger wakes up each day wondering if the Auburn Hills-based auto supplier she's spent years building is on path to earn a billion dollars in annual sales...or spiral into bankruptcy.

Her uncertainty rests on whether President Donald Trump's proposed 25 percent tariff on foreign cars and parts is adopted. If it is, Buchzeiger, 44, will brace for the worst, reported the Detroit Free Press.

"We may have to start all over again and reconfigure the business," said Buchzeiger, CEO of Lucerne International. "There's going to be some carnage along the way and it's going to be companies like mine that are first to go. We don't have deep pockets."

Lucerne International sells about $50 million worth of parts it makes each year. It has eight plants in Asia where it fabricates auto parts using steel and aluminum before shipping them back to the U.S. for final production for its various automaker customers, the biggest being Fiat Chrysler.

Lucerne, for example, makes all the hinges on the Jeep Wrangler SUV. That means if Lucerne goes under, FCA may have to find another company to make those hinges, and there aren't very many. 

Long-term contracts with its customers block Lucerne from passing its higher raw material costs or tariffs on to them. And Lucerne's profit margins are too thin to absorb the higher costs. 

Buchzeiger said she understands the motive behind the Trump administration proposing the tariffs: Bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. That's harder than it sounds, she said. For one thing, when she investigated producing parts here, she could not find an existing plant with the capacity to build the volume of parts she needed.

Already, Lucerne has taken about a 20 percent hit on its parts sales to BMW. That's because China raised the import tax on cars from the U.S. to 40 percent in retaliation for Trump's higher tariffs on Chinese goods. 

BMW builds SUVs in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and exports them to 140 countries, including China. BMW has scaled back the number of cars it plans to sell in China now because of the tariff. Therefore, it is ordering fewer parts from Lucerne, she said.

Besides the financial hit, the tariff issue has been an overall distraction to business, Buchzeiger said. 

"We've wasted so many resources on dealing with these tariffs and rather than me spending my time running my business and doing what I'm good at, I am spending time in Washington and addressing this issue," Buchzeiger said. "Other companies have told me they've had to pull (people) off their regular jobs and put teams together to address these tariffs."

She said a supplier she knows sold one of his divisions because he needed to get out from under the tariffs and change up the company's operations.

"I want to keep growing and bring manufacturing back to the U.S., but we need time," Buchzeiger said. "I can't even fill my open spots right now because of the low unemployment rate. There is a shortage of skilled trades. I don't have people to put in a plant, so it's a compound issue."

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